NEW YORK — Former vice president Dick Cheney defended the newly disclosed electronic surveillance programs operated by the government on Sunday and called the former National Security Agency contract worker who disclosed them a criminal and a traitor.
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Cheney, a forceful advocate for the classified programs when he was in office, said that Edward J. Snowden, a Booz Allen Hamilton employee who was assigned to a NSA facility in Hawaii, had severely undermined US intelligence capabilities.
Snowden, who flew to Hong Kong from Hawaii last month with a trove of documents about top-secret telephone and Internet surveillance programs, has since revealed that the United States had penetrated the computer systems of China and numerous other countries.
“I think it’s one of the worst occasions in my memory of somebody with access to classified information doing enormous damage to the national security interests of the United States,” Cheney said.
Cheney said that Snowden had violated US law and might be a Chinese spy.
“I’m suspicious because he went to China,” said Cheney, who flew to Washington from his home in Jackson Hole, Wyo., on Saturday to appear on the Fox program. “That’s not a place where you would ordinarily want to go if you are interested in freedom, liberty, and so forth. It raises questions whether or not he had that kind of connection before he did this.”
Snowden had written in earlier Internet postings that he was interested in Chinese language and culture and suggested that a posting in the country could be a good career move. He said he chose Hong Kong, a semiautonomous region of China, because of its history of free speech.
Cheney said he is concerned that Snowden has additional damaging information. He said he thought the Chinese authorities might welcome the opportunity to provide him sanctuary from American law enforcement officials who are expected to seek his extradition to face charges in the United States.
Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and National Security Agency, said Sunday that the government’s reliance on data collection from both Americans and foreign nationals was constitutional and carefully overseen by executive, legislative, and court authorities.
In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,’’ Hayden said he worried that news reports about the programs have often provided erroneous information, ‘‘much to the harm of a rational national debate.’’ He did not specify those concerns.
Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who has been a critic of the secrecy surrounding the government’s surveillance, raised doubts about the effectiveness of the widespread collection of US phone metadata.
‘‘I don’t think collecting millions and millions of Americans’ phone calls — now this is the metadata, this is the time, place, to whom you direct the calls — is making us any safer,’’ Udall said on the NBC program.
Udall said he is introducing a bill to narrow the reach of that collection to only ‘‘those who have a link to terrorism.’’
President Obama has defended the electronic eavesdropping programs, saying they were closely monitored and were a useful tool in fighting terrorism.
But Cheney said Obama could not mount an effective defense because of investigations into the Internal Revenue Service treatment of Tea Party groups and continuing questions about the terrorist attacks on an American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. “He’s got no credibility,” Cheney said.
US Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, defended the surveillance programs on Sunday, saying they were tightly monitored by Congress, the courts, and the executive branch. He appeared on the CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“We’ve used it sparingly,” Rogers said of the capacity to collect records of telephone calls and Internet traffic. He said that much of the reporting on the programs has been exaggerated and that most Americans would support the data collection if they understood its narrow scope.
Rogers said most of the information is kept in a “lockbox” and not scrutinized unless it correlated with activity of known or suspected foreign terrorists.
“The NSA is not listening to Americans’ phone calls, and it is not monitoring their e-mails,” said Rogers, a former agent in the FBI. “If it did, it’s illegal. It’s breaking the law.”
He also referred to a letter delivered to Congress on Saturday from the office of James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, in which he said that the surveillance programs had helped thwart “dozens” of terrorist plots in the United States and more than 20 other countries. The letter said fewer than 300 American phone records were reviewed in 2012.
The White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said that he did not know where Snowden was now hiding but said that he had exaggerated his access to sensitive materials.
Snowden, in interviews from Hong Kong, has said that he had the ability to tap into virtually anyone’s telephone conversations or to monitor the president’s private e-mail, if he had the address. McDonough called such assertions “incorrect.”